Razorbacks’ football program not a laughing matter

It’s getting rough out there for the Arkansas Razorbacks in more ways than one.

Injuries are mounting, losses are piling up, coaches seem frustrated, players seem dispirited, some donors are questioning their investment, some former players are disgusted, and some fans are irate.

Even those Hog supporters who aren’t on the cliff have given up playing apologist for a program that’s fallen and is struggling to get up.

Most, who care, can recite the Razorbacks’ woes at this point. They are are 2-5 overall and 0-4 in the SEC and 0-7 in their last seven games against Power 5 opponents. The trend was to blow leads in the second half, but that has swiftly shifted to just getting blown out. Over the last two weeks Alabama and Auburn beat the Hogs, 41-9 and 52-20 respectively.

Most are questioning head coach Bret Bielema’s future with the program. Those that aren’t have their heads in the sand. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.

The most radical want a complete cleaning of the Razorbacks’ stables, a Herculean effort that would not only include Bielema and his staff but also athletic director Jeff Long, too. The reasoning is that every football hire he’s made has gone afoul.

Bobby Petrino won on the field but his private life got so out of hand that it ended up making it impossible for Arkansas to retain him without being further disgraced.

The stopgap move of hiring John L. Smith as interim coach and program caretaker was a debacle.

Long, of course, hired Bielema away from Wisconsin to clean up that mess, and in may ways he has.

Most feel Bielema’s best work has been off the field, but that is being a bit shortsighted.

The Razorbacks have made three bowls in a row under Bielema, and as bad as things are on the field, and make no mistake they are bad, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the Razorbacks to earn a bowl bid this year.

It would take winning four of their last five games, or possibly sneaking into a bowl game at 5-7 if the numbers work out. However winning four of five or even three of five seems unlikely when a team is 0-7 in meaningful games dating back to the tail end of last season.

Monday Hog fans woke to the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum floating speculation that Gus Malzahn might beat the posse out of Auburn and head back “home” to Northwest Arkansas to lead the Razorbacks program after the season.

Of course, that one has been making the rounds in Northwest Arkansas since the Hogs’ 28-7 loss to TCU. Some feel that would be a perfect marriage, but a portion of Razorbacks supporters and fans still hold animosity toward Malzahn for being a part of the situation that brought the Broyles era to an end.

Why look to a solution that has one strike against it before the coach walks in the door?

While it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that Malzahn might want out at Auburn — a place where they fired Tommy Tuberville two years after his team went undefeated — would he want to step into the rebuilding situation at Arkansas if there were other options?

Coaches returning “home” to Arkansas haven’t turned out well. Just ask Ken Hatfield and Houston Nutt.

An even more clear vision of how bad the situation at Arkansas came into view following Bielema’s announcement Monday that senior center Frank Ragnow is out for the rest of the season with a high ankle sprain that will require surgery.

Immediately people began to speculate that Ragnow wasn’t really injured. The thought was that Ragnow was stepping away from the Hogs’ final five games to protect his NFL Draft status and not to recover from an injury. The idea was that Bielema lied at his press conference to cover up for Ragnow.

This is pointed out to show how cynical the climate is around the Razorback program at this time. Not only are people disagreeing with the head coach, but they are also questioning his truthfulness and integrity.

All of this begs the question of how did this happen?

Before this season, I would have pointed to Bielema’s hire of Kurt Anderson to replace offensive line coach Sam Pittman as the key problem along with a lack of speed and experienced talent across the board.

Anderson isn’t molding an offensive line with the best clay, but Arkansas’ line play regressed last season, and the Hogs have played even worse up front this season. Even middling players improve some with good coaching.

With Arkansas’ offensive philosophy predicated on a strong running game led by a dominating offensive front, a terrible offensive line makes all aspects of the offense ineffective.

However, it goes beyond that, and the depth and talent issues Arkansas has on defense.

Arkansas has never been an easy place to recruit to. During Arkansas’ best years, the program counted on Little Rock and Texas to fuel the program with talent.

However, high school football in Little Rock has been a shadow of its former self for decades. Someone could write a good book on how that happened, but that person isn’t me.

Arkansas’ recruiting efforts in Texas have been spotty since joining the SEC. The Razorbacks once fought with Texas A&M for the best the state had to offer after Texas and Oklahoma made their choices, but that’s not been the case for a very long time.

Bielema muddied the waters even more a couple of years ago in speaking at a Texas high school coaches meeting when he downgraded the Spread offense to a group of coaches whose bread and butter was the Spread. That move hasn’t been forgotten, and it won’t be until those coaches retire.

But recruiting Texas is more complicated than just that.

Legendary Arkansas athletics director and football coach Frank Broyles was a man of vision, but it seems that he was off on his thought that adding Texas A&M to the SEC would help the Hogs’ recruiting efforts in Texas.

His thought was that with A&M in the SEC, the conference would get more coverage in the state and that the coverage would lift Arkansas’ imprint. If the Razorbacks had been operating at a high level, Broyles’ prediction might have come true, but A&M winning every game with the Razorbacks since the Aggies joined the SEC in 2012, mitigates all of that. Why would a Texas player go to Arkansas when he can play closer to home at A&M?

Obviously, it’s not just poor recruiting in Texas that has hurt Arkansas’ efforts on the field. It’s relatively poor recruiting compared to much of the rest of its SEC brethren across the board. Player development — the new term for what us old guys used to call coaching — is also an issue. While Bielema’s Wisconsin teams were known for not beating themselves, his Razorbacks squads have been their own worst enemy at times. The Razorbacks need more talented and better coached players across the board if they are once again to compete in the SEC.

However, money — TV money to be exact — seems to be changing the balance of power in the SEC, and Arkansas seems to be caught on the wrong end of this change.

The gap between the top fourth of the SEC and the middle half seems to be widening. A look at last Saturday’s scores is a small bit of evidence:

Alabama 45, Tennessee 7
Mississippi State 45, Kentucky 7
LSU 40, Ole Miss 24
Auburn 52, Arkansas 20

Last week was a blowout buffet across the league.

There also appears to be a shift within that middle of the SEC that seems to be leaving Arkansas closer to the bottom middle or even the lower fourth, and money may be the difference.

The SEC has always been a lucrative league. The moves made by former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer in the early 1990s to expand the league’s membership, add divisions, and create a championship game made the SEC the most lucrative and competitive conference in America.

That model became THE model for conference structure. The Big 12 moved away from a championship game in 2010, but has reinstated one for this season after its teams were left out of the four-team College Football Playoffs two of the first three seasons.

The development of the SEC Network under former SEC Commissioner Mike Slive and now Greg Sanky along with ESPN has made the league incredibly more profitable.

The payouts to SEC teams for TV revenue from the 2016 season were between $39 and $41 million to each and every team. That’s outside the money generated by the programs through donations, ticket, merchandise, and other sales.

For the first two decades since joining the SEC, Arkansas operated for the most part in the upper middle of the SEC in football. Coaching had a lot to do with it, but Arkansas’ facilities and outstanding support by ardent fans is what kept it just below the league’s elite programs and ahead of the rest.

However, the influx of TV money from the SEC Network and the inconsistency of Arkansas’ football program on the field has allowed programs like Mississippi State, Ole Miss and South Carolina to move even and pull ahead of the Razorbacks in the SEC pecking order in recent years.

Again Arkansas’ primary edge was facilities, but SEC Network money has allowed the aforementioned schools to make up that gap.

Now, this is just a theory. It may not bare out over the years. Arkansas righting its ship on the field might correct it instantly. With a stronger football program, the Hogs could firmly move back to the upper middle of the SEC pack and be knocking on the door of that top fourth on a year-by-year basis.

However, the SEC TV money gives every program in the SEC the ability to compete at a higher level, and without the right leadership, it’s going to be easier than ever for any program – not just Arkansas’ — to fall in the league’s pecking order.

What’s worse, though, is this revenue might be a sea change that will be difficult for the Razorback program to overcome. It’s happened before.

From Broyles’ second year as head coach in 1959 through the 1982 season, the Razorbacks’ program was a top-15 program. Actually in the 1960s, Arkansas’ program was a top-5, but it dipped in the early 1970s when it was slow to integrate.

Arkansas’ program, however, took its big hit with the sea change that came when Georgia and Oklahoma sued the NCAA over the right to negotiate television rights for their own football games.

Until that suit which the Sooners and Bulldogs’ won in a 1984 decision by Supreme Court Justice and former NFL player Byron “Whizzer” White, the NCAA controlled the television rights for its member schools. Compared to today where virtually every game is televised, very few games were televised through the 1970s. Arkansas was one of the top programs, and it proffered where others didn’t.

However, with the 1984 decision, conferences began brokering deals for TV rights to games and more and more games began to be televised. Instead of the nation being focused on one or two televised games on a weekend like in the 1960s or 1970s, the nation’s attention was fractured and more and more teams gained equal time.

As more games began to be televised, Arkansas’ imprint on the game lessened and lessened. Arkansas entered the 1980s as a top-15 program, but by the time Broyles saved the program by brokering its admittance into the SEC with Kramer, the Hogs were squarely a top-30 program.

And, that’s where Arkansas’s football program basically lived through the 2012 season with a few exceptions. Arkansas’ No. 5 finish in 2011-12 was the first time the Razorbacks cracked the top 10 since the 1982-83 season when the Lou Holtz-coached squad finished No. 9 and No. 8 in the AP and UPI polls.

Bielema, of course, has not had a team ranked in the final polls in any of his four complete seasons.

With TV money evening the playing field across the middle of the SEC, it appears to me it’s only going to be more difficult for the Razorbacks regain and retain a spot in the upper middle of the conference.

Those who make the decisions about the Razorback program are walking a very delicate line at concerning their decisions.

From the Board of Trustees through Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz and Long as well as the donors whose wallets give them a say, it’s critical that the right moves be made whatever they may be.

When the fourth-year head football coach at Arkansas State, Blake Anderson, can stand up in public in the state’s capital and make a joke about the Razorbacks being losers and not be booed off the stage, it’s not a laughing matter.

Arkansas’ football program is in critical condition. Hopefully, the ones in charge have the wisdom to correct the course.